At the start of this year I had planned in my head not to do this Yacht Race for a forth time…
That was then this is now, and I have decided to write a few words about it as it is my only big race this year and I had a bit of time on the yacht… not often you can do a blog mid Adventure Race!
I have had three great races with the team, getting some good results including winning overall and also cleaning up most of the mountain stages. The skipper Geoff West called me in March and announced that he was fancying another race, this one would make it his fourteenth, he has won seven – he likes doing it and he’s retired – so has plenty of time! I said I would have a think and ask around the ‘odd-ball’ end of the running community who like to do this stuff. Not surprising the Czech Machine – Pavel Paloncy was keen to race it again, so that was half the run team formed. Most others I asked where committed to the other smaller Scottish Islands Yacht Race. So it looked like I was going to have to do it…
That was March, ages away until June. But I was conscious of my lack of running over the last year or so, but the lack of running has given way to tonnes of biking, so I was still fit, but not properly ‘run-fit’. The months ticked by and my running achievement’s were really quite minimal and those few that I did, made for some really sore legs and long recoveries, hence the shift to riding more, as recovery is much, much less. So it reached a point where I thought I would just ‘wing it’ and manage as is [stupid me!] Normally for this race I suffer through Leg 1 – up/down Snowdon, then super-perform on Leg 2 – Scafell and then scrape through Leg 3 – Ben Nevis. Not the best approach really. Also I did not want to let my partner down either – Pavel Paloncy is optimised for endurance, so he’s not what you’d call super quick, but he just keeps going and no distance or ascent seems to phase him. He is now known as the Czech Machine and many organisers like to invite him to their races to test him and test their race on him.
The other worry for me on this race is sea-sickness, previously I have suffered then adapted, this year I thought I would be clever and try to get hold of some anti-sickness pills, so I had a chat with Dr Morris a fellow racer and adventurer and he provided the ‘gear’. June drew closer and my life seemed to explode into a million things to do and some additional problems thrown in for good measure, also the passing of Mike Wynne was a bit of a struggle for me and all my ‘coping mechanisms’ where being stretched to the full. Then the biggest difficulty came – Mike’s funeral was on the Wednesday after the race, I knew in my head that it was I bad idea to race as the chances of finishing Tuesday and in time to get back to Yorkshire would not be guaranteed. I did not want to miss the funeral and Annie had asked me to help bare the coffin. So I asked around the running ‘odd-balls’ again to see if anyone fancied a go – no luck – all busy. I did not want to let the team down either, with sailors coming from Holland and runners from Czech and the boat from the Isle of Wight – it was all kind of a big operation. I had many chat’s with people including Annie and decided that me racing was the best option, I felt happier with this and explained the situation to Geoff, he was concerned but understanding, we agreed to review things as the race progressed, at the time we talked he was starting the seven day journey to deliver the boat to the race start at Barmouth and it had been super windy – wind is what we were wanting – and with good winds we could be finished by Tuesday pm.
As I checked the forecast (as you do!) in the week before the race it appeared a shift of weather patterns was forming, the constant rush of ‘lows’ where giving way to a nice ‘high’, with it – warmer days, little wind, basically lovely beach weather or bike riding weather, but totally crap for a sailing race where I had imposed myself a finish deadline! We drove down to Barmouth, picking Pavel up on the way at the airport, its a nice drive down and we arrived there at Friday tea time. I knew exactly where the sailors would be – in the bar of the sailing club – they said that they had been hard at all day and were having a rest… It was nice to have Kerry and Henry along at the start as it is a nice festival atmosphere on the race day. I was not expecting the boat to be prep’ed or tidy. I showed Kerry and Henry our race yacht – it was no luxury and in the usual state of mess (only joking!), but that’s how the skipper likes it – he knows where stuff is, but we don’t!
We got through all our pre-race chores, the biggest one being doing a food and supplies shop – quite a lot of food for 5 people for 4-5 days. As midday approached we said our good byes to the family and got on board ready to set off to the start line a mile off shore, start would be at 14:00 – a neap high tide. The wind was blowing, the sun shining, it was a nice place to be. The flare marked the start and we got off to a flying start – 14 boats where sailing and we were at the front and edging away. Leg 1 to Caernarfon is about 70 miles and you round the tip of the Lleyn Peninsula, it is a pretty sail and always an interesting one with crazy tides and currents around the Bardsey Sound (see pic) then the narrow channel into Caernarfon. My stomach was holding up and we were doing 8-9kts, so all was good. A change of direction as we rounded the Peninsula and headed north meant sail change time – time for the spinnaker, sometimes known as a kite, it is a massive sail and simple fills with the breeze and the boat zooms along, we were making 10-11ktsnow and our time on the first leg would be super quick.
The downside to a quick sail is that the run into Caernarfon would be on low tide, marker buoys mark a channel through the deepest bit. That’s the theory, then ‘bang’ we hit sands and came to grinding halt just 30m off the buoy! Sandbars move. By race boat standards we were in a biggish boat with a 2.3m keel, deeper than most of the other yachts which around 2m or less. Pavel and I were down below getting stuff ready for our mountain run, the sailors scuttled, banged around and shouted above, the wind was pushing the boat onto the bank each time a wave came there was a huge bang as the boat got jolted, sail reefed in the situation seemed slightly better, but the swell was still pounding us. The engine could not shift us, so we anchored to prevent being moved and stuck further. The good thing was we were on a rising tide, if not I am convinced a rescue tow would have been in order. Other following boats eventually caught up and saw us stuck and managed to take a different route, a couple didn’t though, one ‘Team Ajax’ being perilously close and was getting pushed our way, we avoid by a few meters. After about 75mins and a lot of thrashing and pounding I could see our position relative to the buoy move, which meant we were off!
I was now feeling ill again having chucked up twice already I decided to have an anti-sickness pill – but not the best time to have it, the best time to have it is an hour before you go on the water… We made it to the pier at Caernarfon, where the runners discharge the boat. To try to give me some energy I managed some sweets and a gel, I was kitted out and ready, however I was conscious of feeling totally ‘monged’, I recalled Alistair saying the pills did have side effects (as do most pills!)… So now I start my 25 mile run, it’s 11 pm, I have no food in me, I feel like a space cadet and just want a sleep. The start adrenaline helped me adapt a bit, but I did not feel great and the 8 miles of road run to the ‘ranger path’ was pretty miserable. Surprisingly only two teams got past us in the sand bar incident, so we were 3rd on the mountain – White Cloud (Alistair Morris and Phil Scarf) 50min in front and Hare / Hill 80min in front; not likely to catch but something to chase.
It was a warm clear night, the best I have had for Snowdon, it was a nice place to be, but I was not performing and when we heard a gate slam in the distance behind us we knew we were being chased – Pavel took my pack and we hotted up the pace – we had a job to do and that was run as fast as we could as a pair. The summit soon came and I was feeling better after stuffing down some gels and chocolate and electrolyte. The descent was dreadful for me, as the one thing you seem to lose quickest when you don’t do as much fell running, is descending skills. I felt wooden and a lump, then I rolled my ankle – a lot of pain, but soon goes and seems to happen all the time now – I have a knobbly ankle as a result of the abuse. The pain eased and I was back on my way trying to catch my mate back up. It is a rocky long descent from Snowdon and I knew I would be paying for this later… We soon reach LLanberis, which marks the start of the 8 miles of the ‘longest’ road back to Caernarfon. To get through this it’s a case of lock yourself in the ‘pain chamber’ and get on with it.
We closed in on Caernarfon town and saw runners in front, no sign of those behind, this helped boost our moral as we pushed to get to the boat, we caught up with the White Cloud runners, which surprised me as they are quite ‘handy’ racers and my running felt pretty tardy, better still the team behind seemed to have dropped back. We hopped aboard the boat ready for the next sail to Whitehaven, normally about 12-15hrs, but we had to negotiate the Menai Straights and the fast tides that we would encounter would not be in our favour.
Four boats got to the Menia Bridges, impressive engineering – especially the old Brunell Bridge. It was like being on a big Canadian river here, with fast currents, big back eddies, rocks on the surface, rocks hidden – not really the place for a yacht. But it is better to do this route than go round Anglesey, which adds 30-40 miles on to the 110 mile leg. We tied to a mooring buoy and watched the other boats battle it out, inching forwards and back as the wind came and went and was barely enough to compensate for the tidal flow – two forces of nature trying to control our destiny! Eventually with some bold sailing by the 72 year old John Donnelly – skipper of White Cloud, they made it – it took them 60 min to do ½ mile. Then Hare/Hill made it (more on that team later), by this time Geoff was getting super twitchy and decided it was our turn, so we un hooked on set off (see pic), with some canny sailing we got to the best channel and prayed for the wind to keep the sail aloft, we had just enough, our speed being about ½ kt. Once through that the straights open out and then it’s the problem of following the channel markers to avoid grounding and so on to the Irish Sea, normally windy and choppy. Not today. It looked like oil was on the surface and barely any wind. I won’t describe the next 30hrs, as that’s what it took us to do the next 90 miles, suffice to say it brings in a different set of sailing skills trying to eek out every bit of performance from the boat and this is where Kees was at his best – tweaking and fine tuning the sails to eek out every bit of performance. The biggest bonus was that although we did find many wind holes we did every little rowing – which is hard work on a 6 tonne yacht.
So day 2 we were closing in on Whitehaven – 180 miles of sailing done, with 200 miles to go to Fort William. Overnight we passed White Cloud, Hare/Hill and Moby J took more westerly routes, which were longer and no faster. White Cloud was moving faster than us as it was further out at a better wind angle and pipped us into Whitehaven. We had a tidal gate there of 11.20, White Cloud got in at 11.10, we were 8 minutes behind. As you enter the harbour you can put the engine on and reef the sails, effectively completing the sail leg. Approaching the outer harbour, we followed the route that the chart maps as the deepest channel, then ‘bang’ we grind to a holt 50m from the harbour lock entrance, engine on sail up we try to free ourselves, but the falling tide says ‘No’. So we can’t get off we have to sit this out – 11am, we phone harbour master and tell him our predicament and he laughs and says it will be 5pm before we are able to float free. What a pisser! The boat starts to list over, eventually at 50deg, its like trying to sit on a ‘black run’ impossible. Radio on all we can do is chill, but it was annoying as we were prep’ed and psyched for the mountain. Trying to draw out some positives, it was bloody hot and by the time we are on the hill it will be a fair bit cooler. Time to sun bathe a bit, go for paddle, look at the jelly fish, talk to locals curious to our predicament and taking pictures of us…
As the afternoon progresses other boats start to appear out side the harbour and moor up to wait for the tide to rise. 4 boats arrive, Moby J – 2 hours behind, Hare/Hill – 2 hours behind that, then two more. At 4.30 Moby J sneaks past us and into the lock, as it is a smaller boat with less draught, so there off in front… We start to move at 4.45 and make a go for it, but the lock takes an age and is filled with 4 other boats, this takes 30 min and is so frustrating, but by now I am not to bothered about waiting a minute or two longer… Soon we are in and its bikes off, and away we go up to the 5min mandatory kit check stop – all good, teams get asked there estimated time we say 5.20hrs, last year we did 5.25hrs and the record is 5.22 – we want to beat it!
It’s a brilliant ride using an old rail line path to get us out of Whitehaven and up to Kirkland village, then we drop into the stunning Ennerdale, 21 miles all in to Black Sail hostel, about an 80min ride – I love this and we get a train going! Black Sail is a bike drop and then we run over the Pass, down to Wasdale and then up the big hill, about 14 miles and should be about 3.45hrs. The evening is stunning, we pass Rod Howard (from Sleepmonsters – ace AR reports! – see pic – Rob Howard)
Rob takes some pictures and all is good for us, but the climb is tough in the still, warm evening air – no records today me thinks as the pace drops, but we try our best, Pavel takes my pack on the descent and I take his on the next ascent, so we maximise our progress. We meet the Moby J runners and can tell they are going well – possibly better than us… Soon we summit (see pic) and begin descending, I love picking the best lines and I find some belting grass trods that miss the nasty slab/boulder path (which is a pig to go fast on). I hope this helps us make ground, but they are about 25 min ahead and we don’t see them again, all we can do is keep the ‘foot on the gas’.
Soon we summit Black Sail and start passing other teams 3-4hrs behind us, hi-5s as we pass, soon back at the bikes and it is a midge enhanced transition, so no willingness to faff. We are rolling and it feels good, no punctures to great us with, or bike problems. We reverse the route, by now it is dark, so it is headlamp time, the thrill of the narrow rail path as we steam along at 25mph is awesome – I hit a bat full on in the face, it does not hurt me so much but not so sure about him! The watch tells me will be in at around 5.30hr, so not quick enough to get the record but a quick time non-the-less in the hot conditions. We close in on the harbour and we do it in 5.35hr. Happy with that. We are greeted with the sailors who announce we are 10 min too late (a) for the record and (b) to get out of the harbour – arse another 5hr wait…! Being philosophical we will get to have a lovely shower and I would love a beer so much, it is now midnight. The team has some non-race personal issues to discuss, so its team-talk time…
I for one have a funeral that I am keen to attend, Kees (pronounced like case) the Dutch guy, has a mother in Holland who is critically ill (also with cancer). The race so far has been slow and we have had three lumps of bad-luck. Fort William is at least 2 days away, so ETF is Wednesday night / Thursday morning. Given these circumstances and also Pavel’s follow-on plans for a Pennine Way record attempt on the Saturday, on balance it seems the best thing to do is finish racing at here at Whitehaven and retire. Sad as it is not to finish, but it is less sad than missing the others. – There is always another race – Without doubt we had some bad luck on the sail legs, but the sailing the guys did was very well, always being one of the lead pair of boats. As for the running we managed two King-of-Mountains, but it will be a big shame not to get the overall cup. It was a much closer run this time for us, with Muir Morton and Sam Bush of Moby J team pushing us hard. This makes for exciting racing and as we have trackers it is quite addictive following this race as there are so many unpredictability’s, that can change things either way for teams – we seemed to get on the wrong end of these in this race. In hindsight the smaller lighter ‘Tacktix’ boat we raced in last year may have been much better…
I feel like I want to do it again next year…
White Cloud was the first boat home, then Hare/Hill and double handed crew, who sailed and ran it all – incredible effort! Moby J won it overall on the IRC handicap.
See Sleepmonsters and 3PYR website for more info.